Vicious cycle

The New York Times reports today on the admissions crunch at Ivy League schools. Due to record numbers of applicants, Harvard's acceptance rate this year is down to a new low of 7.1 percent, and other schools are setting their own records as well. Why? The Times speculates, but focuses on demographics:

Many factors contributed to the tightening of the competition at the most selective colleges, admissions deans and high school counselors said, among them demographics. The number of high school graduates in the nation has grown each year over the last decade and a half, though demographers project that the figure will peak this year or next, which might reduce the competition a little.

Other factors were the ease of online applications, expanded financial aid packages, aggressive recruiting of a broader range of young people, and ambitious students' applying to ever more colleges.

I'd bet on that last point--students applying to more and more colleges. Anecdotally speaking, when I applied to colleges 16 years ago, submitting a handful of applications was the norm. Now that seems lazy.

As the International Herald Tribune reported in January, "'There was a time when kids applied to three or four schools, then to six or seven schools, and now, 10 or more is not uncommon,' said John Maguire, a higher education consultant." We're in a vicious cycle, where students need to apply to more schools simply because everyone else is applying to more schools. This effect--if indeed there is a doubling or tripling of applications per student--would surely dwarf the relatively gradual increase in graduates each year. I'm just not sure where it ends.

Eric Osberg is a Vice President and Treasurer at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute